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Beyond AI: The Enduring Importance of Human Expertise in Legal Translation

by Michela de Julio
Legal Consultant and Official translator,
expert in recognition of academic and professional qualifications

As we delve into the era of artificial intelligence, it’s crucial to explore how AI is reshaping the landscape of legal translations.
Here are 5 challenges to address.



In my role as an Official Translator and Legal consultant with over three decades in the field, I have witnessed firsthand the evolving landscape of legal translation. While artificial intelligence brings transformative changes, it’s important to emphasise the enduring value of human expertise in this domain. Through this article, I aim to share insights into why, despite the advancements in AI, the nuanced skills of professional legal translators remain indispensable. We’ll explore the intricacies and challenges of legal translation that AI has yet to master, underscoring the critical role of human judgment and understanding in ensuring precision and contextual accuracy.

With the emergence of  AI applications, we are witnessing transformative shifts across various sectors, including the realm of legal translation. This evolution of AI presents both immense potential and distinct challenges, particularly in the legal translation field where precision, context, and deep understanding are paramount. As AI progresses, it offers the potential to increase efficiency and expedite procedures, but at the same time, it sparks important debates about maintaining the fidelity and contextual accuracy that are crucial in legal documentation. These challenges and opportunities are reshaping the legal translation landscape, marking a pivotal moment in its ongoing evolution.


Why AI cannot replace the indispensable role of the legal professional translator?


Challenge 1: Balancing Accuracy with AI Efficiency


Legal translation demands a high level of accuracy due to the sensitive nature of legal documents. AI-driven translation tools, while efficient, often struggle with the subtleties of legal language. The complexity of legal jargon, the importance of context, and jurisdiction-specific terminologies pose significant challenges for AI. Ensuring that AI tools can deliver translations that meet the rigorous standards of legal accuracy remains a key concern. As a matter of fact, legal documents are sensitive and require precise translation, as even slight misinterpretations can lead to significant legal repercussions. While AI tools offer speed, they often fall short in grasping the complexities of legal jargon and context, as well as the specific terminologies used in different jurisdictions. For example, sets of legal principle like “Equity” or “Tort” have specific meanings in the context of the English Legal System that might be lost or incorrectly rendered by AI.

To go more in detail, in the English legal system, “Equity” refers to a set of legal principles that are applied to achieve fairness where the strict application of Common law might result in an unjust outcome. It’s a distinct body of law developed alongside Common law. Translating “Equity” into Italian can be tricky. The Italian equivalent, “equità”, captures the general sense of fairness and justice but may not fully convey the specific legal context of Equity as it exists in English law. An AI translator could overlook these nuances, which are essential for delivering a professional and accurate translation.

Within the scope of the English legal system, the array of legal principles included under “Tort” pertains to a civil wrongdoing that leads to loss or harm for the claimant, thereby establishing legal liability for the individual responsible for the tortious action. The Italian equivalent, “delitto” or “torto”, generally refers to a crime or a wrongful act but may not encompass the same breadth of civil liability implications as “Tort” in English law. An AI system might not accurately capture the specific legal nuances and implications of “Tort” which can be closely associated with the concept of “illecito civile” in Italian law. “Responsabilità civile” refers to the legal obligation to compensate for harm or damage caused to another person, typically through negligent or wrongful acts. This concept aligns with the English legal concept of a Tort, which is a civil wrong leading to legal liability for the person who commits the wrongful act. However, it’s important to note that while “responsabilità civile” is a suitable equivalent, the specific legal frameworks and applications of Tort law in the Common law system and “Responsabilità civile” (also reffered to as “Responsabilità aquiliana” o “Responsabilità extracontrattuale”) in the Civil law system of Italy, may differ. Hence, while translating, it’s essential to consider the context and the legal nuances of the term in both jurisdictions.

These examples illustrate the challenges in translating legal terms where the source and target languages belong to different legal systems. The subtleties and specific legal connotations of such terms are often deeply rooted in the legal culture and history of their respective systems, making it difficult for AI to render them accurately without nuanced understanding and contextual knowledge.

Such intricacies are crucial in legal documents, where every word carries weight and potential legal implications. Ensuring that AI can consistently provide translations meeting these stringent accuracy standards remains a significant challenge and underscores the irreplaceable role of human legal translators.


Challenge 2: Contextual and Cultural Nuances


The translation of legal documents is not just a linguistic exercise but also a cultural and contextual endeavor. Legal texts are often steeped in the cultural, historical, and legal traditions of their origin. This presents a significant challenge for AI in legal translation, as current AI technologies have limited capabilities in comprehending and accurately interpreting these cultural and contextual nuances.

Furthermore, the context in which a legal term is used can drastically alter its meaning. AI systems may not effectively discern these contextual variations, leading to translations that could misrepresent the original text’s intent. This risk is heightened in legal translation, where each word can carry significant implications.

When it comes to the popular “Doctrine of Precedent” legal principle, fundamental in Common Law systems, which relies on the authority of past judicial decisions to guide future cases, translating legal documents that reference specific cases or precedents can be problematic for AI. Understanding the implications of these precedents requires deep knowledge of the legal system and an AI translator might miss the significance of a cited case or fail to convey its relevance in a different legal context.

Legal concepts unique to specific jurisdictions, such as the Italian legal concept of “diritto di superficie” (surface rights), might be hard to be conveyed correctly by a machine translation based on AI. This term refers to the right to own and use buildings on someone else’s land. It’s a concept specific to certain Civil law jurisdictions and may not have a direct equivalent in Common law countries. AI might struggle to find an appropriate translation that captures the full legal implications of such terms.

Idiomatic expressions such as “Acte Clair” in French legal language – a term used in EU Law to denote a matter that is ostensibly clear and does not need further clarification by the Court of Justice of the European Union – can be probably conveyed literally by an AI application without capturing its specific legal significance.

These examples illustrate the complexity of legal translation, where AI tools might provide linguistically accurate translations but fail to capture the nuanced legal, cultural, and historical contexts essential for accurate legal interpretation and application. The intricacies of legal documentation often extend beyond mere words to encompass the intent, purpose, and legal effect of the text. Without a deep understanding of the legal systems, cultures, and contexts involved, AI may produce translations that are linguistically correct but legally or contextually flawed. This challenge underscores the need for human oversight in legal translations done by AI. Experienced legal translators provide the critical analysis and understanding necessary to navigate these cultural and contextual complexities, ensuring that translations are not only linguistically accurate but also legally and culturally appropriate.


Challenge 3: Navigating Cultural References within Diverse Legal Systems


In legal translation, one of the more intricate challenges is accurately interpreting and translating cultural references that are often integral to legal reasoning in different jurisdictional systems. Each legal system can be deeply influenced by its unique cultural and historical context, which can be reflected in its laws and legal interpretations. This challenge is particularly pronounced when translating legal documents between systems that are rooted in vastly different cultural backgrounds. The translation needs to not only be linguistically precise but also culturally sensitive and contextually appropriate to maintain the integrity and intended meaning of the legal text. In some legal systems, cultural or historical references play a crucial role in legal reasoning and judgments. For example, references to religious texts in certain legal systems are integral to interpreting laws. AI might not be able to understand and appropriately translate such references, as it requires not only language proficiency but also cultural and historical knowledge.

Religious Law Influences can play an important role in this matter. In countries where religious laws are integrated into the legal system, such as Sharia law in Islamic countries, certain legal concepts are deeply intertwined with religious principles. For example, the concept of “Mahr” in Islamic marriage contracts – a mandatory payment made to the bride by the groom – is a unique cultural and religious practice. Translating legal documents that reference “Mahr” into legal systems unfamiliar with Islamic law would require careful consideration of both the religious and legal nuances involved.

Let’s take for example, the German legal principle of “Treu und Glauben” which is generally related to the concept of “bona fides,” or “good faith” found in many legal systems. However, while “bona fides” is a broad principle across various jurisdictions, “Treu und Glauben” has specific applications and nuances in German law. In the context of German civil law, “Treu und Glauben” is a fundamental principle that governs the exercise of rights and the fulfillment of obligations. It implies that parties to a legal transaction must act with honesty and fairness and not abuse their rights in a way that would be considered unfair or unjust. This principle is deeply embedded in German contractual law and influences how contracts are interpreted and enforced in Germany. While the basic concept of acting in good faith is common to many legal systems, the way “Treu und Glauben” is integrated and applied in German law reflects the unique legal traditions and cultural values of Germany. Therefore, in legal translation, understanding the specific cultural and legal context of “Treu und Glauben” is crucial to accurately convey its meaning and implications in a different legal system.

In light of the aforementioned challenges, particularly the risk of misinterpretation across different jurisdictional systems, the role of legal professional translators becomes indispensable. These translators, with their deep understanding of legal terminology, context, and the nuances of various legal systems, provide an essential layer of expertise that AI currently cannot replicate. They are adept at discerning the subtle differences in legal language that can change the meaning of a document significantly from one jurisdiction to another. Moreover, legal professional translators are trained to recognise and navigate the intricacies of local laws, ensuring that translations are not only linguistically accurate but also legally sound. In scenarios where precision and contextual understanding are critical, and where the stakes of misinterpretation are high, the human touch of a legal professional translator is irreplaceable. Their role is pivotal in validating and supplementing AI translations, providing a safeguard against errors that could have significant legal ramifications.


Challenge 4: Ethical and Confidentiality Issues in AI Legal Translation


In the domain of legal translation, the handling of sensitive and confidential information is not just a routine task but a fundamental ethical obligation. The integration of AI systems in this process introduces additional layers of complexity regarding data privacy and security. AI translation tools, by their nature, require substantial data input to function effectively. This necessity raises pressing concerns about the potential risks to client confidentiality breach, particularly when sensitive legal documents are processed through AI systems which might store, learn from, or even inadvertently expose this information.

Moreover, the legal profession is governed by strict ethical standards, which include maintaining the confidentiality of client information. Ensuring that AI-powered tools comply with these standards is crucial. The risk lies not just in the possibility of data breaches or unauthorised access but also in the ethical implications of using AI to handle information that might be subject to attorney-client privilege or other forms of legal protection.

Another aspect of this challenge is the responsibility of legal professionals in overseeing the ethical use of AI tools. It raises questions about the extent to which lawyers and legal translators should rely on AI for handling sensitive documents and whether the use of AI aligns with the professional ethical obligations they are bound to uphold. Furthermore, there is the issue of transparency in the use of AI in legal translation. Clients should be informed about the use of AI in handling their documents, including any risks or limitations associated with its use. This transparency is vital for maintaining trust and upholding ethical standards in the legal profession.

It does not appear overly cautious to assert that the integration of AI into legal translation must navigate the complex terrain of ethical standards and confidentiality concerns. Balancing the efficiency and capabilities of AI with the need to protect sensitive information and adhere to the ethical codes of the legal profession remains a significant challenge that needs careful consideration and robust solutions.


Challenge 5: Resistance to Technological Adoption in the legal profession


The legal profession has a longstanding reputation for tradition and resistance to change. Legal professionals often hold steadfast to established methods and practices, which can create reluctance to embrace technological advancements, including AI in legal translation. This resistance is not unfounded, as legal matters are.

Legal professionals, who have long relied on traditional methods, may be hesitant to fully embrace AI technologies. This resistance, stemming from a desire to uphold time-tested standards of accuracy and reliability, can hinder the swift adoption of AI-driven translation tools. Consequently, the potential efficiency gains and cost-effectiveness promised by these technologies may encounter obstacles on their path to becoming integral components of the legal translation landscape.

That having said, the legal industry’s hesitance towards adopting AI in legal translation can be attributed to several key factors:

  • Concerns over accuracy and reliability: the realm of legal language is inherently intricate and nuanced. In legal translation, the margin for error is minimal, as even slight inaccuracies can yield substantial legal repercussions. This high-stakes environment amplifies concerns about the capacity of AI to match the precision and depth of understanding that human translators provide. Despite the significant strides made in AI technology, there’s a prevailing apprehension among legal professionals that AI may not fully grasp the complex subtleties and contextual intricacies typical of legal texts. The challenge lies in ensuring that AI-driven translation tools are not only technologically advanced but also sufficiently sophisticated to handle the unique lexicon, phraseology, and semantic depth of legal language. Enhancing the reliability and accuracy of these AI systems is crucial to gain the trust of legal practitioners and to ensure that they augment rather than compromise the integrity of legal translations.


  • Bridging the Technology Knowledge Gap: a significant barrier to AI adoption in legal translation is the prevalent lack of familiarity with AI technology among lawyers. Many in the legal profession are not fully acquainted with the capabilities, limitations, and operational intricacies of AI systems. This knowledge gap can lead to skepticism and resistance, as lawyers might be unsure about relying on technology they do not thoroughly understand. The challenge lies in demystifying AI for legal professionals, providing them with clear, accessible information about how these technologies function, their potential benefits, and their limitations. Educating legal practitioners about AI is essential to foster confidence in using these tools for critical legal tasks. By enhancing their understanding, lawyers can make more informed decisions about integrating AI into their workflows, ensuring that its use aligns with the high standards of accuracy and reliability required in legal contexts.


  • Ethical and confidentiality concerns: legal translation frequently deals with highly sensitive and confidential information, making data privacy and security paramount concerns in the adoption of AI tools. The potential risks of data breaches and unauthorized access or misuse of information pose significant ethical challenges. Legal professionals are bound by stringent confidentiality obligations, making them particularly cautious about entrusting sensitive client information to AI systems. To alleviate these concerns, it’s crucial to ensure that AI tools used in legal translation are equipped with robust security measures and comply with the highest standards of data protection. Additionally, there must be clear protocols and ethical guidelines governing the use of AI in handling sensitive legal documents. Building trust in AI technologies in the legal realm involves not only enhancing their security features but also ensuring transparency in how data is processed, stored, and protected. Addressing these ethical and confidentiality issues is key to fostering confidence among legal practitioners in the use of AI for translation tasks, ensuring that client confidentiality is maintained, and ethical standards are upheld.


  • Economic and professional implications: the incorporation of AI into legal translation presents significant implications for job roles and professional responsibilities within the legal sector. A prevalent concern among legal professionals is the potential of AI to automate tasks traditionally performed by humans, possibly rendering certain skills obsolete. This fear extends to the possibility of job displacement or a diminishment in the perceived value of their expertise. It’s important to approach the integration of AI with a focus on augmentation rather than replacement. Emphasizing the role of AI as a tool that enhances the capabilities of legal professionals, rather than one that supplants them, can help mitigate these concerns. The goal should be to leverage AI to handle routine and repetitive tasks, allowing legal practitioners to focus on more complex and nuanced aspects of their work. This approach not only preserves job roles but also potentially enriches them, as it allows professionals to concentrate on higher-level tasks that require human judgment and expertise. Navigating these economic and professional challenges requires careful planning and communication to ensure that the adoption of AI in legal translation is seen as an opportunity for professional growth and improved efficiency, rather than a threat to existing job roles.


  • Navigating Regulatory Complexity and Liability Concerns: the legal sector is characterized by stringent regulations, making the integration of AI in legal translation a complex affair. Introducing AI raises critical questions about responsibility and accountability in instances of translation errors or misinterpretations. The current ambiguity in guidelines and regulations specific to AI applications in legal settings intensifies this challenge. Legal practitioners are understandably cautious, as unclear regulatory frameworks make it difficult to ascertain liability, should AI-driven translations lead to legal missteps or misunderstandings. This uncertainty fuels reluctance to adopt AI technologies, as legal professionals must navigate not only the technological implications but also the potential legal repercussions of using AI in sensitive translation tasks. Addressing these concerns requires the development of clear, robust regulatory frameworks that delineate liability and ensure that AI tools meet the high standards expected in legal contexts.


  • The need for legal translations AI tailored and customised solutions: the field of legal translation is characterised by its diverse and specific needs, varying significantly across different jurisdictions and legal domains. This diversity necessitates AI tools that are not merely generic but highly specialized and adaptable to cater to these varied requirements. The challenge lies in developing AI systems that can accurately comprehend and translate the unique legal terminologies, phrases, and contextual nuances specific to different areas of law and jurisdictions. This level of customization is essential for AI tools to be effectively integrated into the legal translation process. It involves not only sophisticated technology but also deep legal expertise to ensure that these tools are fine-tuned to the specificities of various legal contexts. The development and adoption of such specialized AI solutions require substantial investment in research and development, as well as close collaboration between technologists, legal experts, and end-users. By focusing on tailored solutions, AI can be more effectively harnessed to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of legal translations, meeting the high standards of precision and reliability demanded in the legal profession.


  • Transformation of client-lawyer dynamics: the integration of AI in legal translation has the potential to significantly reshape the traditional client-lawyer relationship. The foundational elements of this relationship, such as personal engagement and trust, may be impacted if AI is viewed as lacking the human touch or empathy that clients often seek in legal counsel. Clients value the nuanced understanding and personal attention that attorneys provide, which could be perceived as diminished when AI tools are involved in translation tasks. It’s crucial to address these perceptions by ensuring that AI is used as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the personalized service and expertise that lawyers offer. This approach can help maintain the strength of the client-lawyer bond, reinforcing trust while leveraging AI for enhanced efficiency and accuracy in legal translations.


Challenge 6: Continuous Learning and Adaptation


In the realm of legal translation, the integration of AI poses a unique challenge related to continuous learning and adaptation. AI systems, particularly those utilising machine learning algorithms, require constant input and updates to enhance their performance. This demand becomes especially pronounced in the legal field, where laws, regulations, and terminologies undergo frequent changes and updates.

For example, consider a legal translation AI system designed to handle contracts. Contracts are highly dynamic and can vary significantly in content and structure. Amendments to contract law, new legal precedents, or changes in business practices can result in modifications to contract language. To ensure accurate translations, the AI system must adapt to these evolving legal nuances.

Another example lies in the international arena. International law and treaties are subject to revisions and amendments. An AI system responsible for translating international agreements must stay current with these changes to provide accurate translations that reflect the latest legal provisions.

Moreover, legal professionals rely on precise translations for various legal documents, from court rulings to patent applications. Any failure to incorporate the most up-to-date legal terminology, regulatory changes, or case law developments into the AI’s translation algorithms can lead to inaccuracies, potentially affecting legal outcomes and causing complications for clients.

To address this challenge effectively, organisations implementing AI in legal translation must allocate resources and manpower for ongoing training and development of AI systems. This may involve employing legal experts to monitor and update the AI’s knowledge base, ensuring that it remains aligned with the dynamic legal landscape. Continuous learning and adaptation are essential to maintain the AI’s relevance and accuracy in the fast-paced world of legal translation.


The progression of AI presents both opportunities and challenges for the legal translation industry. While AI can enhance efficiency and reduce costs, it is imperative to address issues related to accuracy, context, confidentiality, and ethical standards. The future of legal translation will likely involve a hybrid approach, combining the strengths of AI with the irreplaceable expertise of human translators. As AI continues to advance, its successful integration into legal translation will depend on how well these challenges are navigated and resolved.

Overall, while AI presents opportunities for efficiency and cost-effectiveness in legal translation, these benefits are tempered by the profession’s cautious approach towards new technologies. Addressing these concerns requires a combination of technological advancements, education, and perhaps most importantly, a cultural shift within the legal profession towards openness and adaptability to change.

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